Hunger: Part 1 of 2

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Welcome to Halloween on Lost Caws! This week, I've got a two-part story that aims for an appropriate level of seasonal creepiness. But here's the really fun part: it's actually adapted from a small part of the text of my novel, The Witches of Nicollet Island. Don't look too hard for clues to what happens in the book, though. I've rewritten it enough so that it really has little to do with that story now. Also, if you're interested, at the end of Part 2 I'll share a few links to some of the folklore that inspired this story. But for now I offer you Part 1 of Hunger. 

Part 1: Tracks in the Snow

Louis stood on the upper level of his deck, one hand on his right hip while the other held a coffee mug sending wisps of steam into the atmosphere. He surveyed the woods around his home and looked out over the lake. The sun was beginning its retreat for the day, sending brilliant beams through the trees on the opposite shore and reflecting off the still water and into his eyes. He squinted into the light, not wanting to look away. A glorious evening. It reminded him of a time that felt so long ago, a time when his life was simpler even if it also seemed dull by his current standards.

He remembered a childhood growing up on the shores of a lake not unlike the one before him. Through all four seasons, the lake was a constant. Fishing in the spring. Swimming in the summers. Canoeing in the fall. Snowshoeing in the winters. There were more chores then, ones that were not only done out of habit but necessary for survival. As a boy, that hard labor seemed to swallow too much of his time, keeping him from doing what he wanted. Now he found he often missed it.

Louis turned and looked at the sprawling, labyrinthine house over his shoulder. Don’t miss that tiny shack though, he thought with a smile. There are some perks.

A cool breeze crossed his face. He could feel the days getting shorter, the nights longer and colder, a cycle he had seen repeat too many times. He was not altogether sure just how many, in fact. Life long ago was fuzzy. So much of his past now seemed like it happened to someone else.

Maybe that was because it had been someone else. He was a different person then, a different creature entirely. It had been a good life right up until the moment it no longer was. And then he, and everything, changed.

***

He can hear everything, can tell exactly where the sounds are coming from and what they are. It’s not hard. There’s so little else to do. He hears the branches of the trees around him shaking in the wind, a percussive shuffle performed without rhythm. He hears the wind passing through the gaps and holes in the walls, whistling and howling like a swarm of ghosts. He can hear the rat-a-tat of the door, the latch not holding it closed quite as tightly as it should be. And he can hear the grumble, groan and crackle of the fire. It reminds him of the way his father would mumble as he worked and only on occasion say something loud enough to be understood.

He feels everything, too. The fire keeping him not quite warm but alive, at least. He can feel the rough wood floorboards underneath him as he sits crosslegged on the floor. He can feel the tension of hunger in his unfed belly, clawing at his ribs as his body consumes itself for lack of anything else to do the job. And everywhere else he can feel the cold. It beckons at his back while his hands and feet hug the flames as close as he dares. It makes every surface seem harder than it’s supposed to be. It makes the whole world seem like it could crack and splinter. 

Time is passing at an unbearable crawl. There are hash marks on the wall where he started counting days, but they only number the eight paths of the sun since it occurred to him to keep count. He cannot recall how many there were before then. And has there ever been a day where it did not snow? Ever in his entire life? He knows it must be so but his memories are at odds with his experience just now. 

The hunger. Always the hunger. Though he cannot recall how many days since his father disappeared into the wilderness nor how many days later his mother followed after, he knows it has been exactly five hash marks on the wall since he ate the last of the meager provisions that remained in the tiny shack. 

They should be back. He knows that much. Should have been back ages ago. His father said it would not be long. But how long is long? To him, anything more than a few minutes, maybe a couple hours at most, is long. Anything after that is unknowable, eternal. His father said he must go and get food for all of them, that a mistake and some misfortune caused the loss of some of what they saved, what they needed to make it to spring. And then his mother followed after, a few days later. Went to check on his father, she said. She told him to stay put. Not to go outside. Stay warm and wait. She insisted she would not be long either, but she did not seem as sure as his father had been. She seemed like she was trying to make herself believe it.

A few marks on the wall after that, he swore he heard something. A weak, faraway voice calling to him, begging him to come outside, to come help. It even dared call his name. This was a trick. He knew it. A foul temptation from some demon of winter, beckoning him to danger, daring him to disobey his mother’s command. He ignored it, covering his ears, singing songs to himself, telling stories to friends that existed only in his mind. And finally, it went away. His mother would be proud, he thought.

He has not slept, but morning comes anyway. Light from somewhere other than his small fire sneaks through the cracks, carried on the frozen wind. It creeps up the side of the home, finally reaching the lone window and spilling over its edges. Today is the day he has decided he must follow where his parents had gone. There is nothing left here, and he is so, so, hungry. He has no real understanding of death, not really. He has seen it come to the creatures in the lake and in the forest in order to feed his family, but it isn’t the same. He does not know that his hunger and his fear are the earliest stages in the growing dread that death is reaching for him. He just knows that something is very wrong, and he must go outside if he hopes to make that feeling go away. 

And so, at long last, he does. Bundled in as much warm clothing as his small frame can support and still move, he unlatches the door, and it swings into the house with ease, exhausted from fighting the pile of snow stacked against it. He squints as his eyes struggle to adjust. The sun has climbed higher into the sky and reflects off of the snow covered forest, as if the entire world is bathed in bright white light. 

He looks for some trace of his mother and father, some hint of a path they followed. His father has taught him something of how to do this, and he tries to remember the lessons. But it’s hard. It’s hard because it’s cold, and he’s hungry and the snow seems to have covered everything that used to be in the world. 

Yet after staring long enough, there it is. A clue. Leading deeper into the woods to his right, there are small depressions in snow, the faintest reminder of snowshoe prints that he is certain must belong to his mother. Just a little beyond those prints he sees a small piece of red fabric tied to a low hanging tree branch. HIs mother said she would leave these so his father would know where she went, just in case. Now they are his responsibility to follow, but he regards the trail with apprehension. The deep forest frightens him. He had hoped he could trace the shore along the lake with its open space rather than entering into the cover and tangle of the woods. But his path is clear, his options few, and so he will follow it. 

He stretches to reach the surface of the snow, leaning awkwardly to the side to get his undersized leg high enough. Once atop the drift, his snowshoes ease the burden and keep him from sinking back down and leaving post holes in the snow. He heads in the direction of the red fabric with his eyes focused on the eroded imprints of his mother’s tracks. 

Everywhere is silent and still. All the animals of the forest have gone to sleep, waiting for warmer days to return. The trail bends and winds into the woods, but just when he thinks the pieces of fabric have disappeared for good he finds another. It feels like he’s walked for hours though he’s only covered a few hundred yards at most, just enough distance to remove his tiny home from sight.

And then the silence breaks. He hears the crunch of snow underfoot, but not his own. Where did it come from? His head swings around, the trunks of trees whizzing by his eyes in a blur as he tries to find the source. He fails, and now another sound follows, that of his heartbeat rising to a steady thump in his chest. He hopes it’s his mother or father finally coming back home carrying food and firewood. All he wants is to see them again and hug them or kiss them. He would settle for having his hair mussed or a pat on the back. Then this would all be over. 

He keeps walking but more slowly, listening for footsteps and watching for their owner. He watches almost everywhere but right in front of him, and so he does not see the thin line hovering at the surface of the snow. It blends in so well he might have missed it anyway.

But he feels it underfoot as his snowshoe comes down on it. He yelps, more surprised than scared at first, and the sound reverberates through the frozen forest. The netting, buried beneath the snow, rushes up to meet him and sends him hurtling into the trees. His hands shoot out from his sides and tug at the trap, frantically clawing for freedom just the way he remembers a fox his father once caught doing the same. Tears rush out of his eyes though he makes no more sound. They begin to freeze almost as soon as they hit his face. He’s terrified, and sad, and still hungry, but for the first time he thinks he might know what happened to his parents. 

***

The unmistakable trill of a loon’s call out on the lake snapped Louis back to attention. He blinked away the memories and brought his thoughts back to the present. Pointless self-pity, he thought with disgust. He threw back the remainder of his coffee in a single oversized gulp, taking note that there was no longer any steam rising off of it, and returned inside to get to work.

Click HERE to read Hunger: Part 2

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